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Fighting In Eastern Ukraine Drags On Into WInter

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russian-backed separatists are pressing an offensive against government troops in Eastern Ukraine. More civilians have been killed on both sides of the line, at least a dozen in and around the separatist-controlled town of Donetsk, and about the same number in government-held areas. The death toll rises by the hour and by the day. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Eastern Ukraine.

Corey, thanks for being with us.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: The fighting seemed especially fierce in recent weeks. Can you begin to tell us what it's been like for the people who live there?

FLINTOFF: Well, right now, the separatists are trying to capture as much territory as they can and push the government forces back away from their cities. And that means that there are a lot of small towns and villages in their way. They've been advancing on these small places and the people in them are trying to escape as well as they can.

You know, in doing the reporting here, we try to focus on the stories of individual people, you know, sort of rather than the casualty numbers. One thing that struck me on this trip is that people's stories tend to sound very much the same, you know, whether they're in Ukraine or in northern Iraq or Haiti or wherever. One lady said to me yesterday that the shelling felt like it was the end of the world. Another one said, my heart stopped, I didn't think we were going to survive.

SIMON: How can we try and make sense of what's happening there?

FLINTOFF: I think we have to focus on those details that anybody can recognize, just show how they become so terribly out of place in the middle of a war, you know? For instance, there was the shelling of a trolley bus in Donetsk last month, and you could do a story about that that focused on, you know, the blood in the streets and the crumpled bodies and all that. But the thing that touched me was that one lady who'd been killed was still sitting upright in her seat on the bus. And you could see, you know, she was a middle-aged lady, respectably dressed, and she was still holding her purse on her lap. I mean, you know, we all know somebody like that lady, and here she is dead with her bus ticket and her purse.

SIMON: Yeah. This is a weekend where a lot of people who play games for a living are going to be called heroes. You and I have both covered wars where we have seen heroes.

FLINTOFF: That's true, you know, and the word heroism gets tossed around a lot. And it's just because we can't find better ways to get at what it is that makes people act that way, you know, really selflessly. I talked to a couple of real heroes yesterday. One of them was a bus driver who volunteered to drive into a town that was under heavy shell-fire and rescue some civilians. And another guy I talked with was one of the people who got out on that bus, and he told me that he and some friends had saved a woman's life the day before. Her house was hit by a shell, and they had to dig her out of the debris while the shelling is going on all around them. And as he told us, you know, he was really proud of it, but he wasn't bragging.

SIMON: As we try and report this conflict, we talk about Russian-backed separatists, we talk about the government, we talk about ideologies, politics. Is that how people connect to this struggle?

FLINTOFF: You know, it's hard to say. To a certain extent yes, but I think it has a lot to do with geography. You know, if you're in a separatist-controlled area, you tend to blame the Ukrainians because the shells seem to be coming from them. If you're on the Ukrainian side of the line, you tend to see this as an assault by the separatists. But for most people, I think it's not really an ideological battle that they can relate to.

SIMON: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Eastern Ukraine, thanks so much for being with us.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.